“If you can’t hack it, don’t write it”
If you’ve got a weak stomach, you might want to avoid a spectacular bit of whining in today’s Sunday Times from Anna Mikhailova, the journalist who “outed” Girl With A One Track Mind author Zoe Margolis three years ago. This all follows the outing of the author of the Night Jack police blog, which has led to journalist Patrick Foster getting some pretty ripe abuse.
Mikhailova, together with ST news editor Nicholas Hellen, took a lot of abuse in the summer of 2006, and later when Zoe reprinted a e-mail from Hellen threatening to reveal her mother’s identity and profession.
The phrase “more front than Harrods” springs to mind. I’ve worked as a journalist, and the likes of Mikhailova make me ashamed. Journalists can be powerful people if they want – even relatively lowly ones. To be able to dispense information is a wonderful privilege. The best news stories move people to action; whether it is to rise up against corruption or to queue up for a concert ticket. It’s a trade that can touch people’s lives.
Unfortunately, Mikhailova seems not to realise this. She takes no notice of the effects her actions had on Zoe, who fled her home and lost her career. Instead, Mikhailova paints herself as the victim.
The naming of Richard Horton, the Lancashire officer, has prompted an online debate that has been seen as a fight between “old” and “new” media, coupled with vicious slurs and personal attacks on the writers involved. It’s a nasty business and one I know all too well.
Three summers ago, while on work experience at The Sunday Times, I wrote a story outing a sex blogger, Zoe Margolis, who had just turned her online collection of back-alley exploits into a book titled Girl with a One Track Mind.
“Back alley exploits”? What is this, the 1950s? It’s a blog about shagging, for crying out loud. Do you know what is, Anna? Find it filthy, do you? (The original story referred to Zoe’s interest in sex as “shameless”.)
The writer’s anonymity was used as a marketing gimmick…
…er, really? The fact that someone might want to try to protect the identities of those they wrote about was a “gimmick”? Writing off someone’s concern for their life as a sales ploy? Very, very odd.
…and the piece was the first high-profile “exposé” of an online writer’s anonymity; I promptly became public enemy No 1 in the blogosphere.
Oh, those pesky bloggers. Mikhailova did get some nasty threats, but what seems to have irked her most of all was the creation of a fake blog which portrayed her as a prudish hypocrite.
Of course it was created (and for some six months updated) behind a veil of anonymity. As I was still a student I didn’t take the attacks too seriously and while it’s not pleasant being pilloried as the embodiment of journalism’s faults, it isn’t the end of the world. Over time, though, things worsened: my tormentors gave details of where I studied and lived, then posted a photo of me.
That’d be a photo from Oxford Student, her past publication, that was in the public domain, if I remember correctly. Not the hardest of Google Images searches at the time. Of course, Mikhailova and Hellen also threatened Zoe with a publication of an unflattering photograph taken secretly, as well as details of not just where she worked and lived, but that of her mother too. But that doesn’t seem to have entered Anna’s head.
It was only when I started full-time work that I realised how deeply I was being damaged. I would turn up to a meeting with new contacts and be greeted with a hesitant: “I’ve seen your blog.”
Cue an extensive effort by the Sunday Times legal team to take it down — successfully, thank goodness.
Well, isn’t it lovely when you’ve got a legal team to back you up? Shame Zoe didn’t have one when you bullied her, eh? Night Jack did, but his efforts failed last week.
Then cue a whine about “the anonymous, many-headed beast of the blogosphere” and “people who think Chicken Yoghurt is an appropriate pseudonym”, whatever that’s meant to mean. Hey, Anna, if you go to Chicken Yoghurt, and click “about“, you’ll not only find the name of its author, but his photograph too! What a cowardly custard!
Zoe’s replied to it in the best way possible – by reprinting the e-mails that Mikhailova sent her in the lead-up to the story running in August 2006, reminding us how she works. “If you can’t hack it, don’t write it,” she says. She also makes the point that the Night Jack ruling “was not a bloggers vs. journalists battle. Instead, it was simply a reaction of disgust that journalistic standards have sunk so low”.
Herein lies the nub. There’s a lot of bollocks talked all over the place about the “blogosphere” and “bloggers”. But behind each of those blogs is a real person. Real people who live, breathe, eat, drink, shag, and maybe even buy the Sunday Times. And all they’re doing is expressing their opinion. Expose members of the BNP, crooked MPs, bent bankers – they’ll back you all the way. “Expose” someone for doing nothing more than write about their life – and you’ll get a bucket of shit poured over you. The spoof blog, the abuse, they are expressions of anger about a media which has drifted away from the public, which makes up its own rules – and cries like a baby when it gets caught in the act. When papers rightly expose freeloading MPs, public anger is judged to be A Good Thing. But when journalists are caught bullying people, suddenly public anger is an outrageous, unjustifiable and unaccountable attack. The only industry that journalists don’t really scrutinise is their own – and they get jumpy when others start to do it for them.
I can only assume that Anna Mikhailova has led a sheltered life and simply doesn’t get it. There’s plenty of those types in the media – rarely straying outside their own circles. But she almost makes a point at the end of her whine. While defamation and threats of violence can never be excused, if journalists were made aware of the public anger over their worst excesses, and made to face up to the consequences of their actions. then arguably they would be just a tiny bit more careful. So perhaps the occasional bit of grief is just the level of control that the journalism community needs.